Latinos, Fairfax Co. Police Team Up to Keep Kids on Soccer Field, Out of Trouble

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

These little moments of cop-kid bonding wouldn't be happening without soccer. Soccer is the bait. The switch is, well, we'll see.

Officer Al Cruz of the Fairfax County Police Department isn't cynical, but he is cunning, and he knows his community. He preaches crime prevention via soccer, and it has led to the creation of one of the unlikeliest, most passionately supported little athletic programs in a region already bursting with overlapping networks of super soccer-mom recreation leagues, where every kid gets a T-shirt and a trophy, along with Spanish-inflected amateur adult leagues, where a day laborer can strut like a king.

Most of Cruz's kids couldn't afford the $65 suburban rec-league fees. So he started a league for them.

"Instead of coaches, we have polices to be our coaches," says Oscar Alvarez, 14.

When the borrowed county bus is full, Cruz and a handful of fellow officers ferry the kids to practice in their squad cars.

"Don't eat my lunch!" Cruz growls as they pile into the cruiser where a takeout meal is stored for later in his shift.

"I never seen a police officer like him," says Nixon Rivera, 13. "He's nice. He cares about us."

Cruz, at 49, is the cinematic image of a beat cop: The face under his buzz cut looks like facets of granite mashed together. He's got the big chest of a guy who jumped out of airplanes with the Army Rangers for 20 years before he became a police officer in 2003. Lately he's gone a little soft in the middle because of too much golf, not enough crunches. His gravelly voice speaks English with a Bronx accent and Spanish with a Puerto Rican accent. In either language, when Cruz barks, people listen.

What doesn't fit the image is how Cruz has been spending Monday evenings lately. Here he is on duty in a crowded middle-school gym in Springfield -- wearing sweat pants and playing an intense game of indoor soccer with a bunch of teenagers. He can't quite keep up. Big drops of perspiration cling to his face. The kids are delighted.

"C'mon Cruz! Cruz!" they shout, mixing English with Spanish. "¡Pásala acá!" "Pass it over here!"

They jeer playfully when Cruz's hand accidentally touches the ball. "I was blind on that, I didn't see it," he protests, but the players rule the officer guilty of an infraction.

Cruz's mind is elsewhere on this particular cold evening, though he hides it from the kids. He's worried about the arrival of warmer weather. Cruz doesn't believe in sports seasons; he wants his kids kicking 52 weeks a year. Can he keep them engaged? Will they follow him out of the gym and onto the fields to play soccer all summer -- or will they drift into less positive pursuits?

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